Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
The difference between four games and 8-10 training sessions, compared to a shortened club season and two sessions, was clear at Napier's Tremain Park on Saturday as Steelform Wanganui lost to Hawkes Bay Saracens 36-12.
On a very hot afternoon with a swirling wind and sun-caked field, Wanganui was left to count the costs with the prospect of at least two season-ending injuries and a whole lot of sore bodies, yet they can still take a lot of positives out of their efforts before facing their fellow Heartland unions.
Playing without the senior halves, Tyler Rogers-Holden showed his versatility by covering fullback, halfback and first-five at various times throughout the match, and performed with aplomb in each role.
The second half scrum with reserve props Gabriel Hakaraia and Hadlee Hay-Horton was very solid, although that was helped by the fact the fearsome Paula Latu had left the field for Saracens.
Latu rattled Wanganui's cages early with some big hits, supported by prop partner Dom Devine, as one-by-one the likes of Dylan Gallien (rib cartilage) and Ethan Robinson (ankle) departed, while try-scorer Wireumu Cottrell, first-five Dane Whale and lock Jack Hodges gutted out their heavy bumps.
Reserve fullback Nick Harding broke down with a pulled groin right on fulltime as Saracens swept from end-to-end to score their fifth try through speedy fullback John Ika.
Other standouts for the home side, who had a deep bench with 25 players and had previously dealt to the likes of East Coast and King Country handily, were lock and skipper Frank Lochore, flanker Lexus Greening, and former Whanganui Collegiate 1st XV player Zac Simpson in the second half.
After blowing the score out to 31-5, Saracens were pinned in their own half by Wanganui, with players in makeshift positions but giving their best, led from the front foot by veterans Campbell Hart and Jamie Hughes in the loose forwards, while centre Josaia Bogileka made up for his first half sin-binning with a couple of important tackles to force turnovers.
Wanganui will need to do a little work at lineout time as several throws missed their targets, after Gallien's injury thrust Joe Edwards into the hooker role early, while lock Josh Lane started the match with his ankle already purple from a training session injury.
Saracens' line speed was that much quicker than Wanganui, who in turn missed three tries with errors right on the line.
Wanganui coach Jason Caskey had not expected miracles against a side supremely conditioned, who were fielding Mitre 10 Cup-calibre talent.
"We were always going to be on the back foot today; these guys have had four games and obviously eight trainings at least.
"Happy with the way we fronted. We had two non-negotiables today - one was not being aggressive in our defensive work, we had to get up, they've got a few sizeable boys, and they carry well so we had to shut their space down.
"Josaia made some really good reads, just staying connected, the spot tackles. Ethan was the same in that first half.
"The other thing was, we had to be prepared to push our skill set and play the ball a certain way, not to go into our shell and do one-off rugby, with forward runners coming inside.
"At the last 10 minutes of the first half we started to go into our shell and reverted back.
"They got the roll of the dice a few times, some intercepts."
Caskey was now doing the head count, given that even if Gallien, Robinson and Harding could bounce back in fairly quick order, just missing two weeks might not make it worth it, with only four First Class matches to play.
"Luckily we got those guys coming back next week – Craig [Clare], Lindsay [Horrocks].
"But really pleasing for these guys, Cammy [Cameron Davies] played the majority of the game, Dane and then Tyler going to No10, for their growth as leaders."
Caskey was also pleased with Hakaraia and Hay-Horton's second half performance.
"We had a pretty makeshift scrum with Cade [Robinson] at lock and Jamie at No7 not one of the biggest guys, but to be dominant at scrum time says something for those boys."
Big efforts were asked of the young Wanganui debutants in No8 Semi Vodosese, who was playing his third match in seven days, along with reserve midfielder Dillon Adrole, who rushed on for Ethan Robinson, and flanker Lennox Shanks.
With Latu and Devine setting the tone with big hits on Wanganui's carries, while pounding it up themselves, they were followed by lock Tupou Ma'afu Afungia, before halfback Humphrey Sheild fired a cut-out ball to winger Ryan Lindeque, who put Greening over in the corner.
Wanganui replied after Gallien made a great run off a penalty lineout win, and from the try-line ruck, Wanganui's own Latu in Kamipeli had a crack, before Cottrell drove low to score for his third-consecutive game.
But Gallien went down hurt at the midfield on Wanganui's 22m, and Saracens ran back a clearance to bust the line right where he was laying, as centre Hemaua Samasoni was collared round the neck while diving over beside the posts, leaving referee Marty Hands (who officiated in the WRFU for seven years) to award a penalty try and bin Bogileka.
Down to 14 and with other players getting hurt in the hard contacts, Wanganui got caught in the ruck for a penalty, and Saracens causally held the ball before surprising everyone with a quick tap inside their half, catching the visitors napping out wide.
From the tryline ruck, Lochore was driven over by Paula Latu to take their team 17-5 ahead at halftime.
Back-to-back tries after the break really stung, as Saracens winger Joeli Suka ran towards a big gap down his sideline, getting away from Vereniki Tikoisolomone, and while the last pass went down, Davies and Rogers-Holden couldn't recover it.
From a 5m scrum, reserve No8 Elijah Martin nearly scored until Hughes stopped him, but the ball was recycled for reserve forward Troy McIvor to drive over on the next phase, with second-five Jordan Thompson-Dunn taking over the goal-kicking.
Just two minutes later with Wanganui in good position, another reserve in Iakopo Mapu was lightning off the line to intercept the ruck pass and take off, and although Tikoisolomone and Rogers-Holden managed to scrag him, the other fresh players were there in support as Sebastian Visinia fed Simpson to run into the far corner, which Thompson-Dunn converted.
Not disheartened, Wanganui kept attacking, although handling errors after promising half-breaks or repeated phases was hurting them.
Seeing they now had an advantage in the front row with Hakaraia and Hay-Horton on top of their second-tier opposites, Wanganui set from a scrum and Rogers-Holden at first-five ran into the gap and turned the ball back inside for Bogileka to run under the posts, with Harding drop-kicking the extras.
Wanganui desperately wanted one more try to bring more respectability to the scoreline, but couldn't quite execute the decisive pass or switch play.
Saracens stole a penalty lineout inside their 22m and reserve back Anzelo Tuituvuki took off, wrong-footed a hobbled Harding, as the home side put the ball through the hands to send Ika clear to the corner on fulltime.
Hawkes Bay Saracens 36 (L Greening, F Lochore, Z Simpson, J Ika tries; penalty try; J Thompson-Dunn 2 con) bt Wanganui 12 (W Cottrell, J Bogileka tries; N Harding con). HT: 17-5.